My first memories of San Francisco are contained within Union Square. My aunt, the one with no children, allowed me to accompany her on shopping sprees around the City. We would start at Gump’s, where she’d ask for my 9-year-old opinion on plateware, and end our excursions at the Westfield Shopping Center food court. My picks were always the same - Loving Hut for vegan Chinese food, then cream puffs from Beard Papa’s, which I’d have for breakfast the next day. I would tear off a piece of the choux, scoop the custard into a soup spoon, eat the hollowed shell, then slowly savor the filling as if it was a pudding. It was particularly tasty with a side of cantaloupe.
All food courts are the same. A child bangs on the table. Parents rest their shopping bags on the chairs next to them or sling them over the back. Someone in a suit scrolls on their phone and shovels food into their mouth with the other hand, not looking at what they’re eating. Custodians spray the tables, wipe them down with white cloths. I try to smile at them, but sometimes I let them pass like ghosts. It makes me sad when they are old, already hunched, but still cleaning because they need the money. When I see them, I have the melancholic sense that all my joys come at the cost of someone else’s hard work.
It’s the metropolitan, I think. It creates this system.
Athletic is not a word that I would use to describe myself, but it is a word that I am trying to make room for. There are many things that I would hasten to predict I am bad at: most sports, lifting heavy objects, fighting anyone who is not a child under the age of 8. However, I want to confirm those things for myself, not take them as fact because they were assumed of me in teenagehood. I don’t mind being weak or uncoordinated, but I do mind having self-limiting beliefs that prevent me from pursuing anything and everything that piques my interest.
This morning, a new friend told me they would have guessed that I was a soccer player in high school. When assessed against my constructed story of self, I found that amusing, but apparently, it’s a very reasonable supposition otherwise. What the world believes is true for us is often more generous than the self-dialogue we offer ourselves. Strangers don’t know the ways in which we categorized and pigeonholed ourselves. They see us as we are, without insight into the conclusions we’ve reached over a lifetime of navigating a social existence that relies on hierarchy and grouping for order.
Up until recently, I had very little faith in Britney as a runner, but I had heaps of faith in a fairly typical 22-year-old girl’s body. Fortunately, I am (inhabit?) both - and the latter undeniably so. (The former is predicated on the faulty, piecemeal collage that is identity development, so I acknowledge that there’s room for debate on what it actually means.) Four months ago, when I considered whether or not I should try to run seriously for the first time since freshman year of high school, I took an objective approach. I saw no reason why a person with an able body and stable health condition should not or could not be a runner. So, as I am fortunate to have both, I made an attempt. The attempt grew into a habit. The habit grew into a hobby. I’m hoping that soon, it will grow into a part of who I am.
When people tell me that they are not runners or that they couldn’t possibly run a certain distance, I know they are lying. I know this because my lived experience and a vast body of science attest that the human body, with its expansive gluteal muscles and nuchal ligament, is uniquely capable of forward motion on two legs.
However, it’s rude to accuse someone of lying, so I usually settle for, “You could totally do it if you wanted to!” I think that is true for most things in life - that we could totally do it if we wanted to. Maybe the trick is allowing ourselves to want the things we want, not merely the things that we believe are within our capacity.
Doubt and denial are powerful defenses because they preclude us from even trying. After all, why go for it if we’ve already decided that we’ll never succeed?
But imagine a stranger meeting you for the first time. Amazing you, with all your promise and verve. I tend to think pretty highly of the human species, but even a cynic would concede that any given person is capable of something worthwhile. What is your something? The thing that seems far-fetched at the moment, but that is perfectly within the realms of believability? Don’t be afraid to name it, even if putting it out into the world means that you’re obligated to give it an honest effort.
My thing is running a marathon. I think that you think that I can do it. I agree with you.
I ate a red bean donut for breakfast. It was covered in sugar, and the old lady who sold it to me put a muscat candy in my bag. When I left the shop, a schoolgirl was kneeling by her bicycle, crying. I patted her back while adults did the hard work of walking her somewhere safe.
I wonder if I’m too adherent to rules -- don’t eat before noon, stay away from carbs, trust others to intervene better than I can. Rules help me feel like things are in order, like I’m concretely taking steps to be kinder, lovelier, more. But both the crunch of the sugar and the huddled support of five women at 8:30 AM felt like small gifts, demonstrations of humanity’s effort to provide comfort and care in whatever tongues we can -- bound by the wordless recognition that all of us deserve joy.
I have been thinking about joy lately, and how to make more of it. I have been reading about famine and disaster, children dying of preventable diseases, and the whole of human civilization collapsing as a result of our own doing. I have looked at the numbers and felt nothing and I have looked at the numbers and felt like the time to act is now, that we are collectively at the precipice of either unspeakable loss or glory for millennia to come. I have been thinking about my role in all of it, what my morals and privilege obligate me to contribute to the first-aid pack that humanity is scrambling to throw together. I have been wringing my hands and scratching my head and feeling my chest constrict as I try to organize the unending influx of information into a comprehensible life philosophy. I have been inventing new rules, practically and stupidly and because it seems like the only logical thing left to do. And I have been trying to put it into writing, failing, and feeling distraught that I can’t.
I want to do good and I want to inspire you to do good as well. I want to read facts and maximize efficiency and know that x, y, and z will make me a good person. But I also want to keep the simplicity alive -- this zest for Being that I’ve only recently taken residence in -- and continue prioritizing little splendors like the sunshine and warm beverages and holding hands with someone who is sweet to me. I want to see and honor you, I want to fix at least one of the world’s problems, and I want to be a normal person who contains their ambitions within the surmountable pocket of individual life. I want to respond to evidence with my mind and I want to respect and follow my heart’s whims. I figure that there must be a way to do all of it, to live in the contradiction of favoring myself over others despite wholeheartedly believing in our equivalency, our essential sameness and right to pleasurable life.
I am not there yet. I have no answers and no smart questions, only a fear of being paralyzed by a lack of certainty. So here, have this snapshot of my understanding at this particular moment. This is my evolving practice of effective altruism, to the extent that I currently believe in it.
The big summit of your 20s is learning how to be alone.
I could write you a list of the events and meals and quiet moments that I skipped in my fear of loneliness, or I could just tell you this. I have “6222 Rose Street'' memorized, the address of the college house where seven of my closest friends lived, whereas I don’t have the faintest idea of what my own San Diego address was. At my friends’ house, I would sit on the sunken couch for long stretches of morning waiting for someone to peer out of their room, sleepy-eyed and slipper-clad, and accompany me on a mundane trip to the store or out for lunch. I could have gone by myself, but I needed companionship to make the maintenance of my life worthwhile. In my frailness, I preferred loitering amongst half-finished boba drinks and year-round string lights to going out into the big, bad world all by my lonesome.
I’m better now, I think. Or at least better at faking it. Less adherent to the idea that someone my age needs to be surrounded by people all the time - that if I’m not, it’s a sign that I’m unlikeable and unloved.
As part of my reformation, I took a solo trip to Oita Prefecture, home of famous hot springs and not home to anyone I know. I planned to write a blog on the experience, entitle it “Dating Myself in Beppu” and write happily and tidily about the positives of spending time alone. And that’s what I did, mostly, but the writing felt flat and regurgitated and brittle - my words dragging my mind towards a reverence of solitude, my heart left somewhere between codependency and connection. I sat on the blog for some time, busied myself by writing bad poetry, then decided to tell you the truth. Being alone is nice, yes, but being together is precious.
In my final semester of college, my phone broke and erased all photographic evidence of my undergrad years. When the Apple Genius Bar employee informed me that all my pictures were gone, I thanked him, then had a panic attack in the shopping mall parking lot. I cried until the windows of my car fogged over with anguish. I bargained, wondering whether I’d give a thousand dollars, five thousand dollars, a fingernail to get them back. I cried the next day too, despite knowing how silly it was to grieve for pixels on a screen. Digital dust worth nothing to everyone except me.
I mourned the symbolism of the photos more than the photos themselves. I mourned not being able to return to my prior states of mind, knowing I’d forget how I felt and what I thought was worthy of being captured and stored. I considered the entirety of my coming-of-age being captured through others’ eyes, slivered and hacksawed and peripheral, and wept.
For a time, I tried to recall the things that only I would know. Don’t forget about eating mangos on the beach. Don’t forget about your sorority sister’s tiny cat gnawing on your toe. Don’t forget about the market visits with your only local friend in Cambodia. Don’t forget about dancing in international nightclubs to Western mega-hits of the 80s. Don’t forget about that textured yellow skirt, and how the San Diego spring air pulsed with possibility, and how you felt falling in love and swearing it wasn’t so.
And then I forgot to stop forgetting, and I kept living. And everything was the same, despite a valuable era of my life existing nowhere except the leaking container of my mind.
When the dust cleared, I realized that I am more than my things. And I am only my things.
Did I lose something irreplaceable or did I retain everything that matters?
It’s a difficult question. But in pondering it, I gained the callousness to pursue minimalism with full intent. It taught me that everything I own is at once, deeply precious, and entirely expendable.